Welcome!

Agile Computing Authors: Elizabeth White, Zakia Bouachraoui, Liz McMillan, Yeshim Deniz, Pat Romanski

Related Topics: Agile Computing

Agile Computing: Article

How Can Metcalfe's Law Be Updated for Web 2.0?

Metcalfe's Law is More Misunderstood Than Wrong

"Metcalfe's Law is Wrong," contended Bob Briscoe, Andrew Odlyzko, and Benjamin Tilly recently in a much-discussed IEEE Spectrum article, in which they wrote: "Of all the popular ideas of the Internet boom, one of the most dangerously influential was Metcalfe's Law." Sim Simeonov disagrees.

The industry is at it again – trying to figure out what to make of Metcalfe’s Law. This time it’s IEEE Spectrum with a controversially titled “Metcalfe’s Law is Wrong”. The main thrust of the argument is that the value of a network grows O(nlogn) as opposed to O(n2). Unfortunately, the authors’ O(nlogn) suggestion is no more accurate or insightful than the original proposal.

There are three issues to consider:

  • The difference between what Bob Metcalfe claimed and what ended up becoming Metcalfe’s Law
  • The units of measurement
  • What happens with large networks

The typical statement of the law is “the value of a network increases proportionately with the square of the number of its users.” That’s what you’ll find at the Wikipedia link above. It happens to not be what Bob Metcalfe claimed in the first place. These days I work with Bob at Polaris Venture Partners. I have seen a copy of the original (circa 1980) transparency that Bob created to communicate his idea. IEEE Spectrum has a good reproduction, shown here.

The original Metcalfe's Law graph

The unit of measurement along the X-axis is “compatibly communicating devices”, not users. The credit for the “users” formulation goes to George Gilder who wrote about Metcalfe’s Law in Forbes ASAP on September 13, 1993. However, Gilder’s article talks about machines and not users. Anyway, both the “users” and “machines” formulations miss the subtlety imposed by the “compatibly communicating” qualifier, which is the key to understanding the concept.

Bob, who invented Ethernet, was addressing small LANs where machines are visible to one another and share services such as discovery, email, etc. He recalls that his goal was to have companies install networks with at least three nodes. Now, that’s a far cry from the Internet, which is huge, where most machines cannot see one another and/or have nothing to communicate about… So, if you’re talking about a smallish network where indeed nodes are “compatibly communicating”, I’d argue that the original suggestion holds pretty well.

The authors of the IEEE article take the “users” formulation and suggest that the value of a network should grow on the order of O(nlogn) as opposed to O(n2). Are they correct? It depends. Is their proposal a meaningful improvement on the original idea? No.

To justify the logn factor, the authors apply Zipf’s Law to large networks. Again, the issue I have is with the unit of measurement. Zipf’s Law applies to homogeneous populations (the original research was on natural language). You can apply it to books, movies and songs. It’s meaningless to apply it to the population of books, movies and songs put together or, for that matter, to the Internet, which is perhaps the most heterogeneous collection of nodes, people, communities, interests, etc. one can point to. For the same reason, you cannot apply it to MySpace, which is a group of sub-communities hosted on the same online community infrastructure (OCI), or to the Cingular / AT&T Wireless merger.

The main point of Metcalfe’s Law is that the value of networks exhibits super-linear growth. If you measure the size of networks in users, the value definitely does not grow O(n2) but I’m not sure O(nlogn) is a significantly better approximation, especially for large networks. A better approximation of value would be something along the lines of O(SumC(O(mclogmc))), where C is the set of homogeneous sub-networks/communities and mc is the size of the particular sub-community/network. Since the same user can be a member of multiple social networks, and since |C| is a function of N (there are more communities in larger networks), it’s not clear what the total value will end up being. That’s a Long Tail argument if you want one…

Very large networks pose a further problem. Size introduces friction and complicates connectivity, discovery, identity management, trust provisioning, etc. Does this mean that at some point the value of a network starts going down (as another good illustration from the IEEE article shows)? It depends on infrastructure. Clients and servers play different roles in networks. (For more on this in the context of Metcalfe’s Law, see Integration is the Killer App, an article I wrote for XML Journal in 2003, having spent less time thinking about the problem ;-) ). P2P sharing, search engines and portals, anti-spam tools and federated identity management schemes are just but a few examples of the myriad of technologies that have all come about to address scaling problems on the Internet. MySpace and LinkedIn have very different rules of engagement and policing schemes. These communities will grow and increase in value very differently. That’s another argument for the value of a network aggregating across a myriad of sub-networks.

Bottom line, the article attacks Metcalfe’s Law but fails to propose a meaningful alternative.

More Stories By Simeon Simeonov

Simeon Simeonov is CEO of FastIgnite, where he invests in and advises startups. He was chief architect or CTO at companies such as Allaire, Macromedia, Better Advertising and Thing Labs. He blogs at blog.simeonov.com, tweets as @simeons and lives in the Greater Boston area with his wife, son and an adopted dog named Tye.

Comments (6)

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


IoT & Smart Cities Stories
Nicolas Fierro is CEO of MIMIR Blockchain Solutions. He is a programmer, technologist, and operations dev who has worked with Ethereum and blockchain since 2014. His knowledge in blockchain dates to when he performed dev ops services to the Ethereum Foundation as one the privileged few developers to work with the original core team in Switzerland.
In his general session at 19th Cloud Expo, Manish Dixit, VP of Product and Engineering at Dice, discussed how Dice leverages data insights and tools to help both tech professionals and recruiters better understand how skills relate to each other and which skills are in high demand using interactive visualizations and salary indicator tools to maximize earning potential. Manish Dixit is VP of Product and Engineering at Dice. As the leader of the Product, Engineering and Data Sciences team at D...
Dynatrace is an application performance management software company with products for the information technology departments and digital business owners of medium and large businesses. Building the Future of Monitoring with Artificial Intelligence. Today we can collect lots and lots of performance data. We build beautiful dashboards and even have fancy query languages to access and transform the data. Still performance data is a secret language only a couple of people understand. The more busine...
Bill Schmarzo, author of "Big Data: Understanding How Data Powers Big Business" and "Big Data MBA: Driving Business Strategies with Data Science," is responsible for setting the strategy and defining the Big Data service offerings and capabilities for EMC Global Services Big Data Practice. As the CTO for the Big Data Practice, he is responsible for working with organizations to help them identify where and how to start their big data journeys. He's written several white papers, is an avid blogge...
René Bostic is the Technical VP of the IBM Cloud Unit in North America. Enjoying her career with IBM during the modern millennial technological era, she is an expert in cloud computing, DevOps and emerging cloud technologies such as Blockchain. Her strengths and core competencies include a proven record of accomplishments in consensus building at all levels to assess, plan, and implement enterprise and cloud computing solutions. René is a member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) and a m...
Andrew Keys is Co-Founder of ConsenSys Enterprise. He comes to ConsenSys Enterprise with capital markets, technology and entrepreneurial experience. Previously, he worked for UBS investment bank in equities analysis. Later, he was responsible for the creation and distribution of life settlement products to hedge funds and investment banks. After, he co-founded a revenue cycle management company where he learned about Bitcoin and eventually Ethereal. Andrew's role at ConsenSys Enterprise is a mul...
Whenever a new technology hits the high points of hype, everyone starts talking about it like it will solve all their business problems. Blockchain is one of those technologies. According to Gartner's latest report on the hype cycle of emerging technologies, blockchain has just passed the peak of their hype cycle curve. If you read the news articles about it, one would think it has taken over the technology world. No disruptive technology is without its challenges and potential impediments t...
If a machine can invent, does this mean the end of the patent system as we know it? The patent system, both in the US and Europe, allows companies to protect their inventions and helps foster innovation. However, Artificial Intelligence (AI) could be set to disrupt the patent system as we know it. This talk will examine how AI may change the patent landscape in the years to come. Furthermore, ways in which companies can best protect their AI related inventions will be examined from both a US and...
Bill Schmarzo, Tech Chair of "Big Data | Analytics" of upcoming CloudEXPO | DXWorldEXPO New York (November 12-13, 2018, New York City) today announced the outline and schedule of the track. "The track has been designed in experience/degree order," said Schmarzo. "So, that folks who attend the entire track can leave the conference with some of the skills necessary to get their work done when they get back to their offices. It actually ties back to some work that I'm doing at the University of San...
When talking IoT we often focus on the devices, the sensors, the hardware itself. The new smart appliances, the new smart or self-driving cars (which are amalgamations of many ‘things'). When we are looking at the world of IoT, we should take a step back, look at the big picture. What value are these devices providing. IoT is not about the devices, its about the data consumed and generated. The devices are tools, mechanisms, conduits. This paper discusses the considerations when dealing with the...